Frank Zappa – the anti-Mozart

I’ve been listening to Frank Zappa quite a lot recently. I go through periods without much Zappa in my life, then iTunes shuffle sneaks one up on me, and I fall in love again. Tonight it was a song called RDNZL, which is 8:38 of hectic polyrhythmic marimba and savage guitar nonsense, from a record called You Can’t do That on Stage Anymore.

But Zappa proves you could. At the start, you can hear him counting out the time: “one, one, one, one.” Its an epic, heroic myxolydian guitar workout that’s uncompromising in its steadfast refusal to what you think a song ought to do. In the middle, it segues into a do-wop singalong, before veering into a jazz-funk breakdown. It would be considered probably unlistenable by many people. And it thrills me profoundly.

There were really two Frank Zappas, I’ve always thought. One was the modern composer of genius, in thrall to Messaien and Varèse. And the other was the flip-side of that, a massively talented musician who worked out that by producing often scatological teenage fluff, could fund his real interests. Which, to my mind makes him one of the more interesting figures in Twentieth Century music.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Zappa was that he was some sort of drug-addled Californian hippy freak. The truth is that Zappa never ever took drugs, and wouldn’t let the musicians who worked for him take drugs either. Black coffee and Winston cigarettes were as far as he went.

The_famous_mustache_and_goatee

When I saw him, just the once, in 1988, his 17-piece band were superbly well-drilled, and could apparently play, off the top of their heads, some 200 Zappa songs, from which he would choose a new setlist every night. You can’t do that if you’re high, trust me. The songs are absurdly complex, and if you made a mistake, you were out.

Zappa is perhaps most famous for a song called Valley Girl, which he knocked up with his daughter Moon Unit one afternoon in his home studio (The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen), a satire on Californian teenage culture. And for taking on Tipper Gore over her attempt to censor musicians. (as he told a Senate Committee, he once wrote a song about dental floss, but didn’t believe anyone’s teeth got any cleaner as a result.)

He produced hundreds and hundreds of hours of music in his lifetime. He was married to the same woman for almost all of his adult life. (After divorcing his first wife, very young,he apparently said his perfect woman would be “a sterile deaf-mute who liked doing the dishes”, which I think neatly illustrates his gift for scabrous satire.) He produced four very talented children (for the record, Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet Emukka Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigene: make of those names what you will.I go with ’original thinker’.)

But for many people, Zappa’s fame rests on a number of frat-boy pastiches, like Bobby Brown and Titties and Beer. They’re good songs, although they can leave a sour aftertaste of misogyny. For fans like me, although I love them, I find them difficult to defend.

And that’s where the Zappa cognitive dissonance raises its ugly head. Zappa could, musically, do almost anything he felt like, with casual brilliance. But, to pay the bills, he had to churn out stuff that sold, sometimes. And Bobby Brown did.

For me, Apostrophe, Hot Rats and Sheik Yerbouti were the albums that got me on board. But Shut Up And Play Your Guitar, a three-volume set of intense guitar solos, has been a touchstone for me for many years.

Running to three albums, SUAPYG is challenging. I attempt to play the guitar, but I have no idea what hell the man is doing most of the time. Abrupt and insane key changes, bizarre shifts in rhythmn, and an uncompromising Strat-delivered tone make Shut Up a truly difficult set of albums. It’s not easy. But it is, undeniably, brilliant.

I am lucky enough to be friends with the genius-level saxophone player of Dweezil Zappa’s awesome tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, which plays his father’s music faithfully and fantastically. I am clearly not worthy to hang out with a musician of that calibre, but hell, I’m clearly going to, if people give me the chance. Because my theory is that Frank Zappa was the anti-Mozart. WA Mozart produced some of the lovliest music that this planet has ever heard. And we needed him back then. But Frank Zappa pushed those boundaries, sometimes cruelly, but always with his eye on the bigger picture. I’m thrilled to be able to listen to both.

When RDNZL came on the stereo tonight, it thrilled me. I tried to think of an analogy that worked, and all I could come up with was of a free rock climber, innocent of ropes, racing up an impossible cliff, and they joy you’d understand watching someone that good do what they were meant to, pushing the boundaries and being scary. Sometimes in life, there are people who are just so far beyond the stuff we understand, it’s better to just stand back and marvel. Frank Zappa was one of those people. Years after his death, I’m still in thrall.

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